Undergraduate Guide on Parenting in Turmoil Helps Counter Social Fears

In post-revolution Egypt, many parents feel unsafe in the country and have, therefore, become more overprotective, strict, short-tempered and impatient with their children, sometimes feeling helpless about their ability to secure a good future for them.

These findings are part of a survey on parenting in times of turmoil conducted by undergraduate students in the Advanced Community Psychology class, taught by Mona Amer, associate professor of psychology. Surveying 154 Egyptian parents, conducting interviews with NGOs and mental health experts, as well as consulting previous literature, the students produced ashort film, titled Mat5afsh (Don’t Be Afraid), and published the Parenting in Times of Turmoil guide, which will be translated into Arabic this summer. The guide aims to advise mental health professionals and nongovernmental organizations in their work with parents to support children amidst traumatic experiences caused by community violence and social instability. The accompanying film visualizes many of the survey findings and recommendations, and is targeted at creating awareness on how to parent and guide children during times of heightened community violence. “We chose to pursue this topic, as we realized that parents have been going through difficult circumstances bringing up their children, and many have questions and concerns about ways to help their children deal with the surrounding violence,” explained Alaa Aldoh, one of the students involved in the project. “Our findings indicate that current events make it difficult for the majority of parents to raise their children properly.” The survey findings reveal the multiple –– and sometimes surprising –– ways in which Egyptian children and their parents have been affected by the public violence that has occurred regularly during the last three years. Almost half of the parents surveyed said they have become more strict with their children, monitoring where they went and what they did more often than before 2011. Many parents have also resorted to negative methods of coping with heightened insecurity, with 43 percent explaining that they have become generally more short-tempered and impatient with their children on a regular basis. “Both parents and children are greatly affected by exposure to violence in one form or another,” Aldoh noted. The primary mode of exposure to violence, according to the survey, comes from watching television or news reports, followed by hearing gunshots and street fights in one’s own neighborhood. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, especially those living in informal neighborhoods, are the most vulnerable to directly experiencing or witnessing violent incidents, and children and families who live near “hotspots,” such as Tahrir Square, are also likely to be exposed to violent behaviors. As a result, almost 70 percent of parents interviewed said they feel unsafe in the country, and almost two-thirds are pessimistic about the future of Egypt. In addition, 40 percent of parents have noticed an increase of fearfulness and worrying in their children, while 37 percent observed a noticeable desire by their children to discuss politics and violent acts. Some of the children have also exhibited different eating or sleeping patterns. The majority of parents have coped with these feelings by choosing to avoid what they deem to be risky or unsafe areas. In extreme cases, some have prevented their children from going to school for safety precautions or have moved them to different schools. Others have called hotlines or sought professional help to deal with their anxiety. “All parents want to help their children, but few actually realize that they need to help themselves first in order to be able to do that,” said Karen Fanous, another student in the class. For Fanous, seeing that many parents were able to admit that they had been negatively impacted by the county’s social instability was unexpected. Aldoh agreed, adding that she was surprised to find that many parents were actively seeking programs that would help them raise their children appropriately in light of their increased exposure to violent events. “It seems like there is a great overall demand for information through various outlets such as television, the Internet, school programs and brochures,” she said. In order to help NGOs and mental health professionals working with parents, the students provided a checklist of symptoms and behaviors that children may exhibit as a result of exposure to violence. These include having a bad temperament and high level of activity, being easily distracted, as well as finding difficulty conveying their fears and worries. In order to counter any negative feelings or behaviors children may experience, the students emphasized “child resilience,” or the ability to carry on and adjust in the face of hardships and sources of stress. In that respect, the quality of parent-child relationships becomes all the more important. “The key for parents and caregivers to build resilience in their children is to provide love and guidance, and also to be a positive role model and to promote autonomy within reasonable limits,” the students noted in the Parenting in Times of Turmoil guide. Some of the ways parents can do this, the students explained, is by being good listeners, maintaining a supporting and caring relationship with their child, and encouraging social and personal responsibility. Establishing a safe home environment and being a good role model are also important. The Parenting in Times of Turmoilguide is coauthored by undergraduate students Alaa Aldoh, Farrah Helwa, Haidy Abdrabou, Karen Fanous, Nevine El Defrawy, Sherine Mikhail and Zeinab Kabiel. Both the guide and accompanying video were recently launched at a conference held by the students, where NGOs from related fields were present in an effort to spread awareness about the project. “The guide has been formatted in a way that it can be easily understood by NGO workers and mental health professionals in order to be better aware of the issues at hand from the perspective of parents and experts,” Aldoh said. “There are also recommendations for potential programs that could be carried out, depending on the target community, as well as questions we frequently received from parents regarding their children and how they could be answered, which are similar to the ones that NGOs and mental health professionals are receiving. The guide and short film would not have come to light without the collaborative effort of all those involved, particularly Dr. Amer, whose guidance was very important for the development of the whole project. We hope to have contributed, even in a small way, to spreading awareness about this important issue." Photo caption: Karen Fanous, one of the students in the Advanced Community Psychology class, plays the role of the mother in the short film produced by the students, titled Mat5afsh, to raise awareness on parenting in times of turmoil